Do Grown Children Break Your Heart More?

Thank God most of us won't suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Thank God most of us won’t suffer like Mildred Pierce, but parents of grown children still feel heartache and uncertainly when the kids face difficult times.

Today I read a wonderfully written essay in The New York Times by Susan Engel, a lecturer at Williams College, entitled “When They’re Grown, the Real Pain Begins,” about the heartache and uncertainty of parenting adult children. Engel describes how badly she felt when her 20-something son went through a series of setbacks, including a serious injury, a breakup with his girlfriend and losing his job.

“I too had been through a tough year,” she wrote, briefly describing her own struggles. “But all of that was mild compared to the agony of watching my handsome, vigorous son kicked to the ground. I didn’t know how to help him, and I didn’t know how to handle my own nearly unbearable feeling of pain.”

In retrospect, Engel writes, raising small children was easier. “As long as you hugged them a lot and made good food, things seemed to be, for the most part, OK,” she says. “You could fix many problems, and distract them from others…All of that changes when they are grown.” Engel felt she was alone until she started hearing from other baby-boomer parents who felt as helpless and as heartsick as she when their own grown children faced adversity.

The opinion piece struck a chord with me. As the parents and stepparents to five young adults – all thriving, thank God — we too struggle with how much we should help them when they hit a rough spot. Around us we see many of our peers faced with decisions about whether to help pay their children’s college loans when they lose their jobs; whether to make a phone call on their behalf, or offer to do research to help them make a decision; whether to say what they really think about the sketchy girlfriend or boyfriend.  They feel bereft when their kids don’t call; when their 20- or 30-somethings are less than forthcoming about how they feel or what is going on in their lives.

As we watch our adult children make their way in the world, many boomer parents worry about their setbacks and missteps with the same anxiety they once felt about sharp edges, strangers, new drivers licenses and college partying. The hard-wired instincts to step in and offer advice and support are not easily disabled, no matter how old they get. (Ask any of us in our 50s who are still getting advice from parents in their 80s…and bristling when it happens!)

Part of this, I think, is the need to be needed when our children have out-grown our parenting.  We feel competent and strong when we feel we’ve really helped them.  But is it really helpful?  Or is it like scratching an itch that won’t get better until we leave it alone?

Most of us walk a thin line between letting our children figure things out for themselves and saving them from themselves. And sometimes the best thing to do is to stifle our instinct to solve their problems, and to tell them: “You’re a smart kid…I know you’ll figure it out.”

The comments to Engel’s column were as intriguing as the essay itself, and showed how polarized both young adults and their parents are about this issue. A few felt that Engel was wrong to air her son’s problems in the New York Times. One grandmother advised her to “keep your mouth shut and your arms open.” One 20-something wrote that he really wants sympathetic listening rather than advice from his parents. And another young adult provided this script: “Mom,when I tell you what’s wrong, I don’t want you to tell me how to fix it, and I don’t want you to tell me it’s not as bad as I think. I just want your sympathy.” YES!

I would love to hear from parents of young adults, and the young adults themselves, on this topic. Parents: have you ever struggled with how much to help your grown children, or have you found an approach that works? And young adult children: how can your well-meaning parents help you the most?

Can We Please Have a Breather Before Christmas?

While many nearby homes are already fully in the holiday spirit, we’re neither here nor there.

Our first snowfall was yesterday. I brought our dog Gus outside for some fresh air and marveled as he saw snow for the first time. He held out his tongue to catch the flakes and drank lustily from the pools of melting snow below our downspouts. Only about two inches fell, but it clung prettily to the branches, shrubs and mailboxes.

The snow was beautiful but it was another unwelcome reminder that fall is over and I’d better get my ass in gear soon for Christmas. Around our town a few organized souls have already done so. As soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were cleared away, electric candles miraculously appeared in each window, garland sprouted around the garage and tasteful white lights on every tree and shrub. On Thanksgiving day we saw at least three cars topped with trussed dead firs driving by. I am still upset that millions of people cut Thanksgiving short to wait in line to buy holiday junk at Walmart.

At our house, two large pumpkins, beginning to soften with age, still sit on our doorstep. Yesterday’s snowfall has given them fluffy white hats. We’ve been too lazy busy for our annual late November tradition of smashing them in the woods, at the same place where countless pumpkins have been slain in years past. While I’ve added a wreath to the front door – only because I had ordered them from our local Boy Scout, who delivered them before Thanksgiving — the pumpkins are still there, as out of place as uninvited Christmas party guests.

We need a breather — a few days or even a week of stillness — between the fall holidays and the winter ones. Just a few days to decompress from the Halloween candy and the tryptophan coma, to pull out the dead chrysanthemums and smash the rotting pumpkins, to sweep away the last of the leaves, to appreciate the barren beauty of the unincorporated territory between holidays. A few days to rest the brain, wallet and soul before December’s shopping, glitz and revelry. Who’s with me?

An Unfaithful Blogger Crawls Back

Please accept this digital bouquet and my apology for being less than faithful over the past month.

In the spirit of David Petraeus, I am reaching out to my faithful followers with a digital bouquet and an apology.

I’m sorry if I’ve been unfaithful to all of you who put your faith in me by being very absent over the past few weeks. I can tell by looking at my stats that you are disappointed in me, and rightfully so. If my stats graph were a GPS system I’d be way on the outskirts of the city right now, the peaks far behind me, heading past dull single-story storefronts towards nowhere, until one day when I log on and see that nobody has read me. I would be lost in the wilderness without you.

I’ve gone back and read my earlier blogs, when everything was so fresh and new and I felt so witty, with the regret of a recently separated woman looking at her wedding album. How did this happen? How did I let you, my loyal reader, down so much by letting so much time elapse since my last post? I can come up with a million explanations, all of them true: the dog ate up all my time; I’ve had company nonstop; some paying work that I just had to do; I’ve been eating too many carbs now that cold weather has arrived, which dulls my brain; and – most painful of all – I had no ideas.

My blog represents the first time in decades that I’ve written just for pleasure and for the thrill of connecting with people, rather than for a grade or a paycheck. Writing for fun and for this connection has been a joy. My blogging friends inspire me every day. But after 14 months and some 80 posts I feel tired and in a slump. I feel as if all the great ideas that were waiting in my head to burst out and be blogged about are all gone. Each day I don’t blog makes it harder to blog again.

Meanwhile I get email after email announcing new posts from bloggers I follow and adore…reminding me of how badly I’ve fallen behind.

But I just wanted to let you know that I am back and promise to be more faithful in the future. And I am asking you for help. Have you ever been in a slump? How did you get your blogging mojo back? Do you make a vow to just post something every day even if it’s half-baked, at the risk of lowering your standards and becoming a so-so blogger? Do you look to newspapers, magazines and other blogs for inspiration? Help me out here!

And please accept my apology and my promise to do better.

I’d send all of you some of this if I could.

Feeling Lonely Side by Side

One of my favorite bits about loneliness is in the Monty Python comedy musical, “Spamalot.”  King Arthur and his loyal — and very non-royal — sidekick Patsy are lost in a dark forest.  All of his other knights have fled and Arthur feels very bereft.  He launches into one of the show’s funniest tunes, “I’m All Alone,” in which he laments his solitary state, totally oblivious to his loyal friend’s presence.

“You know it seems quite clear to me, because I’m working class,” sings Patsy, “I’m just the horse’s ass.”  The song ends with a large chorus singing, “He’s all alone..except for us.”

I was happy that WordPress’s daily writing prompt was to write about loneliness.  It is something that I feel more often than I would like, even though on the surface I have no excuse to be lonely.  I have a devoted husband and children, a mom and siblings who love me, great friends, interests. Through blogging I’ve made wonderful connections with people who inspire me every day.

Yet sometimes I feel like the guy with the white sport coat and the pink carnation, all alone at the dance.

At times in my life I have felt legitimately lonely…post-breakups in my teen and young adult years when loneliness is felt more keenly; weekends after my first marriage ended when the kids were not with me; the time I babysat on New Year’s Eve for a colicky infant.  Also the time when I decided to postpone my entry into college and all my friends had gone…I soon felt like I had been left behind at a bus stop.

But more often, loneliness comes when I make myself too busy and preoccupied to engage with the world.  This is incredibly easy to do, even if you are surrounded by those you love.  Just think about your bills, your commitments, your next work project, the dust balls under your bed, the last petty slight someone doled out to you, your kid’s struggles at school or on the ball field, the sad state of American politics.  Dwell on them for a while.  Let them stew around in your brain. Immerse yourself in your computer screen and smart phone as an escape. Pretty soon you just zone out and your mind is too distracted and numb to think about people.  Until the numbness narcotic wears off and you’re left with yourself, feeling painfully solitary.

I feel the loneliest when I haven’t been a good friend to people who are legitimately lonely.  Plenty of them are out there.  They are housebound stroke victims, newly-divorced people, folks who lack social skills and probably have undiagnosed Asperger’s.  They are shy people who make you row the boat for the whole conversation.  Sometimes you need to reach out to them even when you are busy and need to be alone.

The truth is that being engaged, and keeping loneliness away, takes work.  It means being able to read people, to tune into what they might be feeling, to read between the lines of what they say, to remember their birthdays and troubles and things that are important to them. It means picking up the phone when you see the caller ID of a friend who has been going through a hard time, even when you have no mental energy to deal with her problems.  It means putting aside the petty distractions of everyday living and the temptations of the Web and making a commitment to focus on human beings.

Yes, we all feel abjectly lonely from time to time.  But many times we don’t have to be. As King Arthur also sang:  “We can be lonely side by side; it’s the perfect way to hide.”